Forget Chumbawamba -- with "This Is Hardcore," Pulp once again prove themselves the kings of prole pop. Savvier than Billy Bragg, Pulp may be the only contemporary rock band who can turn their class consciousness into compelling anthems without seeming like Rage Against the Machine-type propagandists. The 13 songs on "This Is Hardcore" are more eclectic than those on 1995's "A Different Class," incorporating loungey xylophones, countrified twang and unctuous jazz grooves into the band's fey, Ziggie Stardust-style guitar god formula. What remains the same, happily, is Pulp's nearly operatic expansiveness anchored by poignant lyrics about desire and desperation among working-class kids.
None of the songs on the new album carry the exhilarating charge of the band's brilliant, scathing "Common People," from "A Different Class," though quite a few come close. Singer and lyricist Jarvis Cocker seems to have traded the cutting contempt that animated "A Different Class" for a more melancholy, romantic mood. Heard at a bar late at night, some of the lyrics from "A Different Class" made me choke on my cocktail, startled by their aptness. I got choked up listening to "This Is Hardcore," too, but this time it was over the songs' deep sense of regret and longing. On "Common People," he railed against a rich, slumming bohemian girlfriend, "But still you'll never get it right 'cos when you're laid in bed at night/Watching roaches climb the wall/If you called your dad he could stop it all." Compare that to the lyrics from the new album's "A Little Soul," in which a failed father begs his son not to turn out like him: "You look like me but please don't turn out like me/You look like me but you're not like me, I hope/I've got no wisdom that I've got to pass on/Just don't hang 'round here, I'm telling you son."
Not that the new album's depressing -- Pulp couches Cocker's most devastating observations in relentlessly upbeat, hook-heavy melodies and impeccable production. Cocker's still funny -- on "Dishes," he whispers, "I'm not Jesus Christ, though I have the same initials." Only one song, "Seductive Barry," is really dark and dissonant, and even then the bleakness is accessible and recognizable -- it sounds remarkably like a Love and Rockets track. A song about the existential horror of getting old, "Help the Aged," is absurdly catchy, with the refrain, "Funny how it all falls away," sung in a cheerful '50s falsetto. "Like a Friend" is a nearly perfect single, a confection that will likely be blasting from all kinds of car windows this summer. Sung in Cocker's honeyed croon, insults like "You take up my time, like a cheap magazine" and "You are the drink I never should have drunk/You are the body hidden in the trunk" sound like the fluffiest of endearments.